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Lead Nurturing Gone Wrong – And How to Make It Right

Four Steps to Better Relationship-Building

Harold, marketing VP of WidgetWorks, breezes past Ellen’s desk, stops abruptly and pivots in her direction.

"Oh – Ellen. We need to roll out a new nurture campaign in couple weeks.” He flashes a smile. “ Our CMO is really in love the idea of creating a mascot for our brand – you know, a B2C approach to our B2B product. Like Toucan Sam for cereal, only for widgets.”

Ellen sighs, but she’ s not surprised.

"But what about our ‘ Why Fidget’ campaign?” she asks. “It’s generated the highest soft conversion rates for WidgetWorks in five years – and we were going to roll out the next phase of messaging in a month.”

“Oh. Yes...well, forget about that," Harold says. "The campaign has generated great results, thanks to you and your team. But senior leadership wants something new to jazz up the quarter – you know how it is.” He shakes his head, chuckling. “Can you have three concepts ready by Friday?”

“Sure,” Ellen mumbles, wondering how she’s going to explain the new campaign rationale to her team.

If Ellen is worried about befuddling her team with a mascot campaign, imagine the confusion it will stir up among WidgetWorks customers. Consider the prospects who are being successfully nurtured by the “Why Fidget” message. What happens when the content they previously found valuable vanishes, only to be replaced by emails featuring Wally the Widget Master? It’s likely to make some of them question what the brand is really about. Before you know it, highly engaged WidgetWorks prospects start swan-diving into the “unsubscribe me” pool.

This is a compelling, but rarely discussed, example of lead nurturing gone awry. (Thanks to Ardath Albee for spotlighting it in Digital Relevance.) All too often, B2B marketers don’t think about content as a continuous, relationship-building narrative. It’s much easier to think in a time-bound campaign mindset, in which brands presumably move prospects through a linear “funnel.” Reality check: we don’t dictate the buyer’s path. Today’s B2B customers are autonomous researchers, plugged into Wi-Fi and cruising around the wild, wild Web while our sales professionals wonder where their “leads” are and what those leads are doing.

Thanks to empowered customers, B2B sales teams have a short window of opportunity to close deals. It’s no wonder, then, that lead-to-deal conversion rates are so low (0.8%). Poor lead quality is the commonly named the culprit of low sales conversions. We’ve all seen the jaw-dropping stats of qualified B2B leads that aren’t ready to buy. But what are B2B brands doing with those prospects until they’re ready to buy? Almost 60% of B2B marketers say they have some form of lead nurturing program in place. Why, then, aren’t our efforts more effective? Where are we taking a wrong turn – and how can we get back on track?

To answer these questions, B2B marketers need to broaden their relationship-building perspective. Look beyond your typical lead nurturing practices. Rethink your approach by following these four steps, and you’ll discover more open doors to engagement.

1. Know Before You Nurture

B2B lead nurturing is incredibly challenging in the Age of the Customer, even when brand messaging is consistent. Why? Because it’s not all about our companies. It’s about meeting (or exceeding) individual buyers’ needs and wants at any given point in time. This is what makes a batch-and-blast email announcing a company’s new CEO a lead nurturing fail. It isn’t hard to guess recipients’ mental reactions: “Humph. What’s the new chief going to do about product quality and selection?” or “ What about the low knowledge level of the sales reps?”

Current and future customers expect companies to know and recognize them, regardless of who contacts them (or how). Slip into your customers’wingtips (or bunny slippers) for a minute. Imagine engaging with a brand advocate via Twitter and enjoying a warm, candid exchange – only to receive an automated, impersonal email from the same brand’s sales team hours later. How irritating, to repeat get-to-know-you small talk. If you had to do the same thing on a second date, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t agree to a third.

It’s time for B2B marketers to bolster their relationship-building skills and think differently about customer data and delivery.
Shelly Lucas, Content Marketing Director, Dun & Bradstreet

This lack of insight can be partially resolved by integrating your customer data. Few companies have achieved this, with good reason. Fragmented technologies, poor data quality and/or limited access to data are monumental challenges. Adding multiple decision-making layers piles on even more complexity. In the wise words of David M. Raab, “As Tolstoy never said, all good customer databases look alike, but every decision system is different.”

While there’s no easy solution to this, it’s time for B2B marketers to bolster their relationship-building skills and think differently about customer data and delivery. Very soon, it won’t be enough to integrate your technology and get your own data in tip-top shape. Your lead nurturing program won’t flourish if you deliver the wrong content at the right time (or vice versa). To do that, you must be open to new information sources and intelligence approaches. Deepen your customer knowledge by looking for new data types (e.g., social and sentiment), adding external data and developing predictive buyer behavior models.


2. Think Outside the Inbox

Another area that would benefit from broader thinking from marketers involves the nurturing channels themselves. Email is the most commonly used B2B nurturing vehicle. But open rates don’t exceed 20% on average, which means marketers aren’t reaching a significant chunk of their known audience. Add to this the lengthy B2B buying cycle – it takes about 84 days to convert a B2B lead to an opportunity. It only makes sense for marketers to look beyond the inbox for nurturing opportunities.

Marketers believe social media, paid search and display retargeting can be used to keep prospects engaged throughout the complex B2B purchasing path. However, many companies don’t pursue these channels for lead nurturing because they lack the effective and well-integrated multi-channel marketing infrastructure needed to evolve their nurturing to this level. In fact, nearly 70% of marketers admit their email, display, search and social are only somewhat or not integrated at all.

Thanks to the popularity of mobile devices, marketers are seeing advances in cross-channel customer tracking beyond cookies. While there’s no new standard yet, enterprise CMOs should start preparing now by finding ways to open doors within their own marketing teams. How can your content marketing and advertising folks work more closely together? How might the teams’ technology platforms be integrated for easy data-sharing?

3. Sales and Marketing: Can We Talk?

As long as we’re talking about breaking down barriers for better lead nurturing, we might as well bring up the big one. Both sales and marketing have a vested interest in sourcing high-quality leads. Most B2B companies would say they could do better with this. While there’s a ton of information and advice on how sales and marketing can work better together, it all starts with a conversation. Both teams must agree on what a “qualified lead” is and trust each other’s ability to recognize it. Clearly, this isn’t happening as often as it should, as seven out of 10 organizations admit their sales resources are spending too much time on lead qualification and not enough time pursuing revenue.

Marketing and sales must also share an understanding of what lead nurturing is, as well as their respective responsibilities for stimulating and maintaining prospect interest. Does your sales team understand how marketing automation can help test and document buying triggers? In turn, do you know the sales practices currently used for nurturing? In the process of these discussions, you’ll discover ways you can nurture better together.

4. Offer Content Choices

Throughout this post, I’ve urged B2B marketers to think more expansively about various aspects of lead nurturing. There’s one more I’d like to mention: the call to action (CTA). Compared to customer insight, cross-channel nurturing, and sales and marketing collaboration, it may seem like a granular subject. It’s nevertheless important because the regularly cited best practice (offer one clear CTA) is built on the mistaken assumption that marketers dictate the buyer’s journey.

Email marketing experts advise us to keep it simple so prospects and customers know what to do – e.g., “download this white paper,” “register for this free webinar,” “take our survey.” But what happens when your CTA doesn’t appeal to the recipient? With the rise of interactive content, customers are becoming accustomed to choosing their own adventures. They’re willing to spend more time reading your content if they’re confident they’ll find something of interest. Ideally, that interesting piece of content will refer them to a blog post or slideshow on the same (or related) topic. Why not present email recipients with more than one choice? They may not be ready to share their contact information to download a white paper, but they may be open to reading an ungated blog post on a similar topic. Experiment with CTAs and design. Test, test and test again. You’ll learn more about your prospects in the process.

Keep Your Nurturing on Track

Let’s revisit the WidgetWorks scenario. Think how differently it might have played out if Harold and Ellen had thought more broadly about their lead nurturing program. At the very least, they could have raised the following questions in response to their CMO’s mascot campaign idea.

  • Customer Insight: What about the prospects who are highly engaged with our current campaign? They represent $X in potential revenue. Are we confident they will respond positively to the mascot approach?
  • Cross-channel Approach: Let’s think about how we can use paid advertising and social media to bolster our email nurturing. Will the mascot messaging translate well to these channels and do we have the budget to support it? How will we track program performance across channels?
  • Sales and Marketing Collaboration: Is the mascot concept easily integrated into sales’ existing nurturing processes? Will sales actually use it? Assess how difficult it would be to adapt and how quickly the new messaging can be activated with the sales force.
  • CTAs: Let’s think about what content choices we can offer in each communication. What associated content would each prospect segment be interested in?

Lead nurturing is about finding open doors. And if you’re willing to rethink your relationship-building, you’re likely to see a lot more of them.